Welcome to a new year of riding.
And judging by the empty bike shops and full roads and trails, I’m almost certainly saying that to more people than I would have been this time last year. Because for a vast number of newcomers (and returnees) cycling is proving a fantastic way for people to literally and psychologically escape from the other 'C' word that’s gone viral over the past 12 months.
And isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t it fabulous to see cycling explode in popularity? Or can you tell that I’m typing this with slightly gritted teeth? Because riding is what WE do, not what THEY do. And those are OUR bike shops that are now completely empty so WE can’t get the bikes, spares and kit WE need. And those are OUR roads and trails that are now clogged with people who haven’t a clue how to ride and really get in the way of OUR KOMs. Or maybe they’re trying to make our favorite rides easier by straightening corners, filling gaps, or horror of horrors - USING AN E-BIKE!
There is a possibility that I’m the only impatient swine who’s cursed quietly behind wobbling neo roadies who are turning queuing drivers rabid with rage. Or had a vein pop in their temple as well as their forearms emergency braking to avoid someone stopped at the bottom of a drop or riding the wrong way around a blind corner. I’m pretty sure I’m not though, so this week I’m going to share the thoughts that help me pull my head out of my selfish sphincter. Because however frustrating it might be in that heated, halted moment, more riders can only be a good thing in the long run.
All the gear but no idea
Those shops might be empty, but they likely have nice full cash registers as a result. That means they’ve got a good chance of being open not just next year, but a few more years to come. Not something that a lot of independent bike dealers - or even some big chains - would have been confident to claim when 2020 started. So while you might have to hunt around for that part you need, at least there are plenty of potential places to get it.
These new riders, paying full dollar for kit they don’t need have always been crucial to making riding better for bikers on a budget too. I can remember an argument with Steve who was the other Saturday boy in the shop I worked in 30 years ago about ‘Rolls Royce man’. A lovely but clearly ludicrously wealthy bloke who literally used to turn up at mountain bike races on Woodbury Common with his bike across the back seats of a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. And he tottered round at the back, being lapped multiple times while riding a titanium Merlin loaded with all the latest, lightest anodized parts. This drove Steve mental as he saw that much loved but never maxed out superbike as a total waste.
But as I pointed out then and have pointed out many times since in similar situations if Mr Rolls Royce didn’t buy XTR, then Shimano couldn’t eventually pass down all those fantastic features like V brakes and 8-speed Rapid-Fire shifting to the groups we could afford. More to the point as starving students, the fact that when he bought those Grafton cranks, Rich, the shop owner actually bought a packet of biscuits for the tea break, and when he bought those original Manitou forks we even got treated to fish and chips for lunch which was a very real bonus. AND when Steve bought a fresh Ground Control tire for the race the next day he got it for half price because that Merlin he lapped would be wearing a set of brand new titanium Onza bar ends.
That increased spend obviously extends right up the supply chain to manufacturers, distributors and even parent companies, too. At a time when many sports and recreational activities were effectively outlawed, the Olympics didn’t happen and even football and golf faltered, bike sales rocketed out of control and we somehow sneaked three Grand Tours and some major mountain bike events past the pandemic. And the racing was nothing compared to the revolution in recreational riding.
As a result, corporate groups where bike equipment was an insignificant sideshow have suddenly become dependent on all the new riders turning pedals. For example, Endura is now taken really seriously by people who relied on Speedo for their pensions before. E-bike motors are now a significant part of Bosch’s future plans, not just a left-field experiment with leftover windscreen wiper motors. And if cities like Paris have been totally turned over to cycle use, you can bet there are some really big companies thinking that bikes might be more than just decoration for lifestyle ads and showroom promotions. And whether it's politicians or CEOs taking an interest that means investment, priority changes and a bigger and brighter future for all bikers.
Here's looking for good vibrations, trails giving me excitations
And let’s talk about those natural territorial tendencies. I might have had to basically give up riding my local trail center, the traffic-free bike path out of town and the singletrack just down the road this year because they are gridlocked with a mix of shiny brand new bikes, and shonky ones that haven’t turned a wheel since last century. But that’s pushed me to rediscover trails I’d forgotten about, or seek out entirely new ones. Often built by kids who’ve suddenly discovered riding as an escape from closed classrooms and young lives otherwise put totally entirely on hold. So yeah you should feel a bit guilty about grumbling over shopping shortages when you suddenly find a sweet set of berms and a sequence of gap jumps in your local dog-walking woods.
Even riders who weren’t going anywhere were worth chasing as Peloton took over showrooms next to Tesla and put adverts for sexy-looking stationary bikes ridden by ordinary-looking people into prime time slots.
And let’s have a think about who those ordinary-looking people might be. The ones wearing Y-fronts under their Rapha bib shorts, their helmets on the wrong way round or with elbow pads over their sleeves. They might look a joke on a bike, but there’s a much higher chance they’ve got some serious business, planning or even political clout than the guy with the FTP of 400 or a full wardrobe of Fox. Because while the new rider has been working late at the office for years, the established rider has probably been skiving off work early to get more miles in. The parents of those kids digging berms and sending jumps rather than being in school are also getting lessons in just how much being outside and getting exercise can help with stress and anxiety at any age. That means they’ll hopefully give the next grom they overtake on the road more room and they might even be tempted to borrow a bike and see what all the fuss is about themselves.
We all started somewhere
In other words, while they might not fit the shaven legged, SPD-sandaled or roof-banging fixie fury critical mass protestor profile of the caricature cycling advocate, these new riders and their relatives are potentially people who can really do great things for the future of riding. I’m not just talking hypothetically here either. One of the most exciting things to happen to me last year was being CC’d into an e-mail with the director for the Yorkshire Dales National Park to start a discussion about growing mountain biking. Something this ex-runner was suddenly passionate about, having bought an E-bike to save his smashed knees and finding a whole new world of stunning scenery and exercise opening up for him. A world he now wants to open up for as many people as possible with a new pro biking policy that he wants experienced riders to help with.
And that’s where all of us can really help. Not just by being patient and tolerant but being pro-active. Don’t shake your head at the poor souls riding down main roads, suggest (from at least 2m away obviously) alternative routes that’ll give them a much better experience which they’ll want to repeat. Give the headless chickens about to flap blindly down a black run a more suitable idea of where to head. Don’t just give a newbie ten seconds to get out of your way before you buzz their tire or panic them into the gutter. Give them ten minutes of your time to show them a handy technique, help with an obvious bike setup issue or work out a kind way of telling them their lid is on backwards or why they’ll never look Pro Peloton with a pair of Calvin Kleins up their crack.
Because whether it was Merckx, Burton, Hinault, Kelly, Tomac, Pezzo, Peaty, Giove, Wiggins or Vos who got you into riding, we all started somewhere and we almost certainly got in somebody’s way in the process.